The Day the Bears Went Hungry
Pebble Mine, Brown Bears & the Climate Crisis   For the past year, Inletkeeper has been studying the brown bears in Lower Cook Inlet, to understand the potential impacts on bears […]
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Pebble Mine, Brown Bears & the Climate Crisis  

For the past year, Inletkeeper has been studying the brown bears in Lower Cook Inlet, to understand the potential impacts on bears and the bear viewing industry from the proposed transportation corridor and export terminal from the Pebble Mine. 

Lower Cook Inlet boasts the highest concentration of brown bears in the world, and Pebble’s infrastructure would fall smack-dab in the middle of some of their most vital habitat, cleaving a path between Katmai National Park and the McNeil State Game Refuge to the south, and Lake Clark National Park to the north.

And bear viewing is big business, driving more than $40 million into our economy and supporting hundreds of Alaskan jobs each year.

Yesterday (July 10), I just happened to pull up the live bear cam at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. At a time when thick red salmon runs should have been pushing through the falls, with a dozen bears or more gorging themselves for winter, the live footage showed . . . nothing.  Sometimes one bear, sometimes not. But in several hours with the bear cam playing in the background, I never saw a fish jump or a bear catch a fish. Many comments from online viewers recognized the same, with some scanning the down-river, underwater live cam with hopes of seeing schools of fish headed up to Brooks Falls.

Then, in a timely coincidence, I got an email from our friend and long-time activist Rick Steiner (Inletkeeper bestowed its 2010 “Muckraker of the Year” award on Rick). Rick wrote:  

“A potential story that deserves attention is the run of red salmon now at the mouth of the Brooks River (Naknek Lake, Katmai National Park), that have not been moving upstream to the falls in the past few days.  A ranger at the falls yesterday told me she had not seen any salmon there in the past few days.   Many think this may be due to excessive water temps due to the excessive air temps in past week or so (90 degree air temps, 70 degree water temps, I was told!).  There is a significant scientific literature on the effects of water temps on salmon, and it seems to be playing out at present at Brooks.  I was at the fall yesterday, there were no salmon, and the bears seemed a bit lost….This may be a portent of what is in our future for salmon and bears in a world of climate change.”

Rick’s observations, and the anecdotal information we get from the web cams and online viewers, supports Inletkeeper’s scientific research over the past 20 years: climate change is warming our fish streams, and threatening our cold-water salmon runs.  That’s because as streams warm, fish become stressed, and more vulnerable to pollution, predation and disease. So, when temperatures reach upper thresholds, salmon can either die or simply avoid entering these hotspots.

On the very same day the Brooks Falls bears found few fish, Inletkeeper’s Science Director Sue Mauger issued a press release.  Sue has been studying the interface between climate change and salmon streams for almost two decades in Cook Inlet, but what she found recently on the Deshka River – located in the Mat Su Valley roughly 100 miles north of Brooks Falls – raised some big red flags.

On July 7, stream temperatures in the Deshka topped 81 degrees F – far surpassing the upper limit set by the Alaska’s water quality standards for migrating salmon at 68 degrees F (see 18 AAC 70.020(b)(10)(C)).   

Sue noted: “We know rising temperatures have already taken a toll on Lower 48 salmon. In Alaska, we have a lot to learn about how tolerant our salmon are and how effective they might be in finding patches of cold-water to ride out warm spells.”

So, how does this all come back to Pebble?

The Pebble partnership and the Army Corps of Engineers did an anemic job on the project’s draft EIS.  Even the Trump EPA and the Dunleavy DNR submitted highly negative comments. Among many other deficiencies, the EIS failed to understand the significant impacts from the mine on brown bears and wild salmon as our climate crisis unfolds.

Equally important, the Pebble EIS failed to address the inherent value of large, intact ecosystems in a changing climate.  Scientist Daniel Schindler has documented what he calls the “portfolio effect,” where wild salmon require a diversity of habitat to weather anticipated changes in our natural systems.  In other words, intact ecosystems provide much-needed resilience for bears and fish in times of rapid change, just like a diversified investment portfolio helps investors endure market fluctuations.

And there’s no greater change confronting our bears, our fish – and us humans – than climate change. And Tom Collier and the Pebble Partnership ignored it all.  That’s why hungry bears are just one more reason to pull the plug on this inane project.